Do you remember that scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds when a flock of crows silently swoops into a deserted playground — first one, then a few more, and then many more — until the swings and monkey bars are festooned with the black-feathered creatures? What an eerie sense of foreboding it elicited. I can still feel the hair rising on the back of my neck. And it was just a bunch of birds.
The morning before last week’s storm, I was walking with my dog on the beach when I saw two empty wooden rocking chairs on a deck, steadily rocking. I saw clumps of dried eelgrass skittering across the sand. I saw a harbor suddenly devoid of boats. I got that same sense of foreboding.
Yet it was just a beautiful overcast day, the sun breaking through now and then, with a white light shimmering on a slight chop in the water. Occasional gusts were noticeable, but if you had not been alerted to the impending hurricane there would have been no reason for anxiety.
Everybody was talking about this storm. I went to the hardware store to get one of those electronic battery chargers in case of a power outage. The clerk told me he had sold 30 of them that morning alone. I am sure that Stop & Shop was doing a brisk business as well. Isn’t it always toilet paper that sells out at such times?
One national news station referred to New England coastal settlements as “ghost towns.” Wrong again, national news. But a bike ride downtown on gallery stroll night found very few people out and about.
The day before, people I met said the requisite “Have a nice day.” In the face of the storm, it was the more peremptory “Stay safe.”
The storm itself, as it turned out, was not much of a story, but our reactions to its approach are worth considering. The recent tragedies in Hawaii and Morocco and the unimaginable horror of Libya are not far from our thoughts. We live in a coastal community, and the sea can be a harsh neighbor. We are due — overdue, many say.
How do we take in the reality of harm? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, danger also has a subjective quality. Certainly, real perils exist, just as real beauty does, but it is our perception of them that is paramount. A coiled cobra is a threat; a garter snake is not. A hurricane can be deadly; the nor’easters we experience off and on are noteworthy but not cause for alarm. It is the anticipation of harm, the pre-perception, that I find striking.
Anticipation is a powerful emotion, and it has survival value. We are animals, after all, programmed to fight for survival when danger comes our way. Our imaginative powers are what make Homo sapiens distinct. They also bring us down, however, individually and as a species.
When does anticipation lead to trepidation? When does our desire for adventure lead us into actual danger? I said the horror in Libya is unimaginable, but it isn’t: we do imagine it, and we imagine it happening to us.
Still, it always seems to be happening somewhere else, and it is the dispossessed who are even more dispossessed. But there is the real possibility that our turn will come. The supposedly slow consequences of climate change are speeding up, along with political unrest, terrorism, war, and societal breakdown.
So, under a darkening sky and a strengthening wind, we retrieved our kayaks from the waterfront, took down the hanging plants, stacked and secured the lawn furniture, made sure our flashlights were working. These were all precautions, as in pre-caution.
And now the storm has passed. It was generally a nothingburger. There is, mixed with relief, a slight sense of foolishness. Our anxiety somewhat embarrasses us. We go back to our lives. And wait for the next one.